The Warring States period was an era of warfare in ancient China, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation; the major states, ruling over large territories, quickly sought to consolidate their powers, leading to the final erosion of the Zhou court’s prestige. As a sign of this shift, the rulers of all the major states (except for Chu, which had claimed kingly title much earlier) abandoned their former feudal titles for the title of 王, or King, claiming equality with the rulers of the Zhou.

The Warring States period saw the proliferation of iron working in China, replacing bronze as the dominant type of metal used in warfare.

At the same time, the constant conflict and need for innovative social and political models led to the development of many philosophical doctrines, later known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. The most notable schools of thought include Mohism, expounded by Mozi; Confucianism, represented by Mencius and Xunzi, and Legalism, represented by Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, Shen Dao and Han Fei, and Taoism, represented by Zhuangzhi and Lao Tzu.

The many states that were competing between each other attempted to display their power not only militarily but in their courts and state philosophy. Many differing rulers adopted the differing philosophies in their own advantage or that of their kingdom.

Mencius attempted to instate Confucianism as a state philosophy through proposing that through the governing of moral principles like benevolence and righteousness, the state would win popular support from one state and those neighboring, eliminating the need of a war altogether. Mencius had attempted to convince King Hui of Liang, although was unsuccessful since the king saw no advantage in the period of wars.

Mohism was developed by Mozi (468–376 BC) and it provided a unified moral and political philosophy based on impartiality and benevolence. Mohists had the belief that people change depending on environments around. The same was applied to rulers, which is why one must be cautious of foreign influences. Mozi was very much against warfare, although he was a great tactician in defense. He defended the small state of Song from many attempts of the Chu state.

Taoism was advocated by Laozi, and believed that human nature was good and can achieve perfection by returning to original state. It believed that like a baby, humans are simple and innocent although with development of civilizations it lost its innocence only to be replaced by fraud and greed. Contrarily to other schools, it did not want to gain influence in the offices of states and Laozi even refused to be in the minister of the state of Chu.

Legalism created by Shang Yang in 338 BC, rejected all notions of religion and practices, and believed a nation should be governed by strict law. Not only were severe punishments applied, but they would be grouped with the families and made mutually responsible for criminal act. It proposed radical reforms, and established a society based on solid ranks. Peasants were encouraged to practice agriculture as occupation, and military performance was rewarded. Laws were also applied to all ranks with no exception; even the king was not above punishment. The philosophy was adapted by the Qin state and it created it into a well-organized, centralized state with a bureaucracy chosen on the basis of merit. This period is most famous for the establishment of complex bureaucracies and centralized governments, as well as a clearly established legal system. The developments in political and military organization were the basis of the power of the Qin state, which conquered the other states and unified them under the Qin Empire in 221 BC.

An important literary achievement of the Warring States period is the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (zuozhuan), which summarizes the preceding Spring and Autumn period. The less famous work Guoyu is thought to be by the same author.

Many sayings of Spring and Autumn philosophers, which had previously been circulated orally, were put into writing in the Warring States. These include the Analects and The Art of War.

Edited by staff


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